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February 2, 2012

I was encouraged when in I read Susan Freinkel’s book, “Plastics: A Toxic Love Story,” that manufacturers of polar fleece garments, such as Patagonia, REI and The North Face, are hungry for recycled PET plastic bottles. They prefer to make fleece from cheaper recycled bottles rather than using more expensive virgin polyester made from our dwindling supply of petroleum. It takes about 25 recycled bottles, otherwise whisked away to a landfill, to make one garment. (If the label doesn’t say the garment is made from recycled fleece, it’s not.)

My enthusiasm fizzled when I read about a study indicating that microfibers from our clothing flow from sewage treatment plants into our water, our oceans and our beaches. These teeny-weeny plastic pellets absorb pollutants “including DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (some of which are constituents of crude oil).” After laundering, a single garment can “shed” as much as 1,900 plastic fibers from one millimeter to 10 micrometers small. Fleece sheds the most. So… recycled PET bottles don’t end up in landfills if they are made into textile, but they do end up in the ocean.

Forget diamonds—plastic truly is forever.

This example underscores the complexities of choosing wisely if one is environmentally conscious. We must consider cradle-to-grave effects, or the life cycle, of any object we buy. From raw materials to manufacturing to disposal, what is an object’s total environmental footprint?

The fleece conundrum made me realize that in my attempt to live an eco-conscious life, I don’t often consider what’s in my closet, a topic that could fill a voluminous book or two: one about fashion (or lack thereof), the other about the environmental costs of said fashion. We’ve all heard about social justice issues when it comes to our T-shirts and tennis shoes, but what about the eco-effects of the pesticides, herbicides and chemicals used to create our clothing?

For example, my closet and bureau is filled with cotton clothing, but I’ve never really considered the negative environmental impact of conventionally grown cotton. Showing up frequently on the Internet is the fact that “cotton is considered the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop. Cotton covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, yet uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other single major crop.”